Jolie's magnificence makes ‘Maleficent’ worth seeing.
The Movie: The idea of refreshing a well-known story via revision is not a new gimmick; a good (and recognizable) story’s a good (and potentially profitable) story, and nobody knows this better than Disney.
Their latest POV-adjusted big screen fairy tale, “Maleficent,” which is currently the third-highest grossing film of 2014 worldwide, retells “Sleeping Beauty,” but puts the villain in the spotlight. First-time director Robert Stromberg (an Oscar-winning visual effects artist) delivers a movie that has more than its share of epic CGI eye candy.
But the movie's not-so-secret weapon is Angelina Jolie, who gives the title role a surprising depth and power, thanks in no small part to Linda Woolverton’s take on the story. The movie’s not perfect, but it’s worth seeing, if only to watch Jolie give a masterclass in character development.
While the “Sleeping Beauty” version of Maleficent is usually viewed as a vicious fiend, this movie says that she wasn’t always so fearsome. Instead, she was a kind and powerful fairy who was among the guardians of an enchanted land. In these youthful days, she befriended a poor human boy named Stefan whose curiosity had led him to cross into her realm, and over time, their friendship blossomed into something that she believed was true love.
But it wasn’t. Over the years, Stefan (played as an adult by Sharlto Copley) had become an aide to a power-hungry king of the neighboring land. After the king’s armies failed to seize the land held by Maleficent and her forces, he takes it upon himself to gain the king’s favor. One evening, he crosses into Maleficent’s realm, drugs her and – after considering murdering her – elects to cut away her powerful wings, and present them as a trophy to the king.
When Maleficent awakens on the forest floor the next morning, she is initially weak and wounded, but soon begins to burn with a need for vengeance. His brutality – and her own primal rage – transforms her into a demonic creature, and the world she inhabits into a fearful, death-shrouded environ, where all cower in fear of her. She soon gains an able-bodied servant – a crow that she rescued from a farmer’s net by shapeshifting him into a human form (Sam Riley).
Once Stefan is king, celebrating the birth of his daughter, the movie starts hitting the familiar “Sleeping Beauty” beats, but because we’re aware of the different backstory, there’s a noticeably changed tone to the proceedings. The three fairies tasked with hiding the princess away from Maleficent (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) are – at best – staggeringly incompetent at caring for a child, and as the baby grows into a wide-eyed young woman (Elle Fanning), the sorceress who cursed the infant finds that she has grown quite fond of her, despite her hatred of the father. Stefan, however, has been drawn into a dark spiral, spending his years sending armies into the field and devising traps to destroy the enemy he himself created.
Again, the movie follows, for the most part, the beats of the original animated version, so it’s not a surprise that Aurora eventually meets her Prince Charming, or that she does eventually fall prey to the curse Maleficent placed on her. It’s also not a surprise that there is a climactic battle between Maleficent and Stefan. Whatever surprises exist in the film are borne of Angelina Jolie’s magnificent, measured performance. Her Maleficent is as complex a character as she's ever played, and Jolie handles the role with ease.
Consider how she physically portrays the aftershocks of the violent act perpetrated by Stefan. The film is discreet in its depiction of Stefan’s act, but the allegory of rape and/or mutilation is unmistakable. Jolie plays the horror of the moment without overplaying it, allowing herself to express the internal twisting of fear and anger in an external way. In a big-budget fantasy adventure that threatens to, at times, lapse head-long into a CGI crevasse, Jolie does the nigh-impossible: she creates someone who seems real.
The other actors don't have roles as rich, unfortunately. Copley does what he can with his part, but his turn from an innocent to a scheming madman happens with relatively no explanation. Fanning is sunny-sweet and likable as Aurora, but she's not given much more to play. And Staunton, Manville and Temple are somehow given even less, and they fare worse – they come off as pathetic fools, not compelling characters.
But I let a lot of that go, thanks to Jolie's impressive work. She's so magnetic in this movie, you can understand why she's a major star.
The Blu-ray: The presentation was quite nice; the 2.40:1 high-definition images were sharp and clear on my screen, and the English-language 7.1 DTS audio was crisp, if not spectacular. (There are also options for an English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, as well as French and Spanish versions in 5.1 Dolby Digital, plus subtitle options in those languages.)
Of the six pieces of behind-the-scenes bonus content, there were only two pieces that stood out from the rest, which seemed like standard EPK filler. The first was a just-under-nine-minute-long talking heads documentary short titled “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” which gives viewers a glimpse into how the movie was developed for the screen by Woolverton, Jolie and producer Joe Roth, among others, and includes Jolie talking about how her costume so terrified young children in the cast (particularly the baby cast as the infant Aurora) that it actually made her upset. The other is a shortened and sequentially-edited version of the film (“Maleficent Revealed”) that demonstrates the many special effects shots and stunt sequences that make up the movie. There's no commentary track on the movie, however, and the deleted scenes are - except for the first, which at least deals for a moment with Stefan's thirst for power - brief and deserving of their status.
Disney also offers a second copy of the movie on DVD in the special pack I received, and buyers of the combo pack will be able to redeem a code for a Digital HD version.
Content Advisory: “Maleficent” is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images. There are some bloodless battle sequences, and there are a few glimpses of nasty-looking beasts, human and not. I mentioned the violation of the title character; while it is kept off-screen, the horror of her reaction is quite intense – as it should be – and may upset sensitive viewers.
Review by Jeremy Blomstedt